For this Poetry Project, we asked Robin Coste Lewis, the poet laureate of Los Angeles, to invite a group of poets to contribute an original poem written in response to a work of art in MoMA’s collection. In addition to hearing these poems read by their authors and reading about their creation on Magazine, you can listen to them in front of the chosen artwork as a part of our new Poetry Audio Tour of the collection galleries.
The Impossible Lesbian Love Object(s)
It’s just an object, it’s not me.
I’m more than an object, we are not having tea.
I am not one, not two. I am a feminist three.
I am Dada—not Mama, never will be.
When no one can use me, I am most free.
I am not like other objects unaware
of themselves, those props subbing for desire:
the corner of the room thinks the room is one-cornered,
that cat sculpture staring as if with its eyes.
I too am a mammal stolen from my original sense of thirst.
Women know this disappearance from meaning.
Like all lesbian triptychs, I’ve stumbled.
Like all love objects, I am triangular, unstable.
I’m a lonely trio, a single setting, vexed
and passive, sexed and distracted.
A hot drink, a pot on the fire, the muscles
loosened, an inner stirring, a little spill,
the coat on the floor. The fur coat on the floor.
The curved fur floor atop another fur circle
to never catch a drop and a concave face
with convex back, swirling nothing.
None of it really happening.
I was once and always only ever an idea,
just a clever blip, a quip, a dare,
converted by coin and concept,
given body, shape, hair,
and an immortal uselessness
all art thinks it’s born with,
that women can’t get near.
I’m beloved for being art’s best worst idea.
Famous for being impossible,
that’s why I’m obscene.
Not because everybody wants to fuck the cup,
not even the spoon can get it up.
Full frontal frottage, sapphic saucer,
a curving inside-outness, hairy leather hole.
Liquid’s skill is soaking, then getting sucked.
Seed’s luck is spilling, then being tilled.
It turns out we are having tea,
but it’s all so heavy with life-cycles
that even when you go light, with art,
to get a little air, the room’s still a bit dark.
And I’m repulsed, which attracts, in fact
the promise of warm fur is ancient,
will outlast the ritual fire and water
of tea for three, not two.
You see there’s me, and you, and we.
Pelts melt into a new body, not old.
We’re not thirsty—we’re not cold.
I’m not just an object,
my surfaces servicing,
but I’m no more than myself.
I end at my edges, finish my points,
even if I bend your senses,
when I am this soft.
The spoon is small,
the cup, generous,
the saucer extra absorbent—
past story, beyond end,
like a certain kind
of woman I have been with,
Why did you choose this work of art?
I’ve been fascinated by this object by Meret Oppenheim for about 30 years. I’ve always been utterly delighted by its wit, its sexuality—it’s a perfect blend of materiality and concept. You could spend several pages describing this particular joke, but she did it in one object.
Oppenheim had such a hard time making other pieces that got the kind of attention that this piece did. And I find it fascinating that this was the first piece of art made by a woman that MoMA acquired, and that this piece dogged her for her whole career. As an artist or creative person, one might wish for the opportunity to nail an idea and create an amazing piece that’s really immortal. On the other hand, it must have been tough to be associated with this one piece. And that pain, futility, and alienation also came into the writing of this poem. I really felt for her and felt what that would be like. That’s where the aggression or anger comes in in this poem: the fear of being used, the pain of being used, and also the idea that one’s full set of ideas and creative possibilities are not acknowledged or utilized.
What was your approach to writing a poem about it?
I was thrilled to get the chance to work with it, look at it, and write about it. I had so much fun. I took huge notebooks—I had like five large notebooks—and I was using a red pen, and was spilling over with things to say and ideas, and possibilities. And one of the things that’s so exciting is the object’s impossibility. It made me think about women’s sexuality—what is women’s sexuality when it’s not utility? And that was an exciting direction. The wordplay seemed to come naturally because the work is so witty. It seems to invite wordplay.
Writing this poem made me feel connected to Oppenheim, even in my imagination, to her possible process. Creating my own process, decades and decades after this piece was made, and decades and decades after my first exposure to it, was revelatory.
Brenda Shaughnessy is the author of five books of poetry, including The Octopus Museum (Knopf, 2019) and Our Andromeda (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). She is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Rutgers University-Newark.